Monday, February 21, 2011

Musings on Downton Abbey

I'm now more than halfway through watching Season 1 of DOWNTON ABBEY on Netflix, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

The show appears to have been strongly inspired by UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, but with a lighter touch -- more Austen (or even Miss Read) than, say, Dickens. Of course, any show about the British nobility and their servants will have to have certain types of characters; for instance, the qualities that would allow a man to rise through the ranks to butler would seem to be universal, and historical incidents of a certain time frame must also be addressed. Nonetheless, some of the similarities between the two programs are notable to fans of the '70s series.

Both shows feature a Thomas and a Daisy below stairs; nasty Thomas calls to mind both Alfred and Thomas of the earlier show, while scullery drudge Daisy reminds the viewer of Eaton Place's not-too-bright Ruby. Both shows feature a smart young miss as the head parlor maid, Jean Marsh's Rose in the original and Joanne Froggatt's Anna at DOWNTON ABBEY. Jessica Brown-Findlay's progressive Sybil makes me think of Lesley-Anne Down's Georgina. And of course, each show features an unflappable butler equal to any crisis. (I love a play on the British WWII poster "KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON" which says "KEEP CALM AND WAIT FOR CARSON." Delightful!) Both shows lose characters to the Titanic; in the case of Downton Abbey's lost heirs, they're never actually seen, but their death sets in motion the most important aspects of the plot.

I do have a quibble or two with the series, the biggest being that I found it unbelievable that Lady Mary wouldn't immediately extricate herself from what we might term "the Turk situation," trying not to be too spoilerish for those who haven't yet enjoyed the show. Lady Mary has shown herself time and again to be a flinty young miss, and given the mores of the era and all that she had at stake in terms of her future, her behavior simply didn't make sense to me. For a moment it felt as though DALLAS had invaded the Abbey -- and then the viewer was immediately distracted by the, er, very unexpected plot development that followed. The elliptical storytelling here was a bit frustrating, leaving the viewer in the dark about key plot points.

Otherwise the show is quite charming. As I mentioned in comments shortly after I began watching, I like the fact that for the most part the characters are nice people, with human frailties and foibles. Much of the conflict arises simply from the situations in which they find themselves, whether it's being the unexpected heir to a great estate or an elder daughter who feels both displaced and without purpose.

Of course, there are two downstairs characters who are truly evil, but I suppose they have to be part of the story in order to provide some of the conflict.

I'm hard-pressed to say who I enjoy most among the large cast, but Hugh Bonneville (Bernie from NOTTING HILL) as the kindly, ethical Earl of Grantham is near the top of my list. Although some viewers apparently didn't care for her, I find Elizabeth McGovern interesting as the Earl's wealthy American wife, Cora. I love that the show depicted a very common occurrence of the era, the uniting of American money with impoverished British nobility, and I also like that the Earl and Countess truly love one another. How refreshing!

Below stairs, how can one not love dedicated Carson, the butler (Jim Carter)? Or brave Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the valet with a limp and a sweet smile reserved for parlor maid Anna? And Phyllis Logan is splendid as the firm but fair head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes.

I also especially like Penelope Wilton as sensible Mrs. Crawley, who suddenly finds her son Matthew (Dan Stevens) the heir to Downton Abbey. Maggie Smith is delightful as the Dowager Countess, whether she's moaning about the dangers of electricity or trying to stay upright on a swivel chair ("I'm a good sailor!").

Parental advisory: much of the series is absolutely fine for all ages, but unfortunately there are also a couple scenes and minor plot threads which are definitely not family friendly. I would therefore not recommend it for children younger than mid to late teens.

Big news for Season 2: IMDb lists Angela Lansbury in the cast, playing a character named Lady Elizabeth Crawley. I've been Googling looking for more information on her casting, but haven't found anything yet! Other new cast members will include Maria Doyle Kennedy, who played Catherine of Aragon in THE TUDORS, and Iain Glen.

Those who haven't yet watched the show might want to sample this tribute video or watch a trailer for a peek at what it's all about. Both videos do a good job of introducing themes and characters without disclosing too much.

All in all, DOWNTON ABBEY is richly detailed viewing which is very much worth watching. Highly recommended.


Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Yay! I was wondering when you'd get a chance to post your thoughts on Downton Abbey. I'm an Edwardian history buff, so when I heard about the series during early 2010, I was thrilled that finally period dramas would expand beyond Jane Austen. I was more than gratified by both the quality of the script and the actors, and especially gratified by the sumptuous setting of Highclere Castle.

One thing I enjoy about Downton Abbey is that for all its soapy elements, there are a lot of kernels for thought. The IMDb message boards and other forums are regularly lit up with debates about Mary versus Edith, whether the Turk situation was coerced, the status of Edwardian women, life in the servants' hall, etc. No matter how many times I watch the episodes, I always find something new to catch my attention, so bravo Lord Fellowes! I can't wait for the second part.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! You touch on something important I didn't mention in my post, the beauty of Highclere Castle. What a treat to enjoy its beauty via the show.

I'll have to check out the IMDb message board discussions!

Best wishes,

12:17 PM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

I'm so glad that you are enjoying Downton Abbey, Laura. The Earl and Cora are very endearing as they try to bend social norms to fit what both is intelligent enough to know is a changing world. (I can't wait to see how the baby's arrival affects the household).

I found Lady Mary's character a bit hard to comprehend initially, but by the end of the series I began to see her as one of those young women whose serenely self-assured visage masks an uncertain and often overwhelmed spirit, who lacks the experience or confidence to be as masterful as she attempts to be on occasion (usually with disastrous results). I found her relationship with her next nearest sister Lady Edith to be strangely cold on both sides--but it was especially distressing to see Edith's actions toward her sister outside of the immediate family.

My favorite scene: the final moment of understanding and compassion between Carson and Lady Mary. So unexpected and tender!

Yes, I'm hooked on this show. I haven't watched Masterpiece Theater with such pleasure in years.

10:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older